River Cruises

Rolling on the river: A new class for American Cruise Lines

American Cruise Lines is expecting to launch the first  of its five new riverboats in 2018. The new class will be the first to combine the modern styling of European riverboats with the premium comfort for which the company is known. Joe Baker investigates the riverboat resurgence.

iver cruises are growing in popularity in the US, with more and more tourists looking to experience a slice of Americana along the country's inland water networks. Providing historic views of the Mississippi and the lush landscapes of Columbia, paddlewheelers have been a mainstay for river explorers, combining luxurious state rooms with a nostalgic Steamboat Willy vibe.

Nevertheless, US tourists have begun yearning for more modern looking vessels, akin to European riverboats floating along the Rhein or the Danube. Industry heavyweight American Cruise Lines therefore aims to usher in in a new era for river cruises in the country, pledging to introduce five new riverboats with sleeker, modern designs. When it launches in autumn 2018, American Song will be the first modern riverboat to traverse US waters, according to the company.

The hope is that the new class of riverboats will appeal not only to new customers, but also enthusiastic river explorers who have encountered glossier boats on their travels abroad.

“Our guests have often asked when we would have a ship more like the modern-style riverboats seen in European river cruising,” says American Cruise Lines public relations manager Alexa Paolella. “As the first ship in our Modern Riverboat series, American Song will provide and new option for US river cruisers never available before.”

Samsung-designed smart bracelets connect to the MSC for Me system. Image courtesy of MSC Cruises

Samsung-designed smart bracelets connect to the MSC for Me system. Image courtesy of MSC Cruises

A sleeker design for US rivers

The five-deck American Song is 340ft long and 60ft wide, ousting many European riverboats for interior space. Providing capacity for up to 184 passengers, it’s slightly roomier than the-175 passenger American Constellation, launched last year, and new vessel American Constitution, which is scheduled to set sail in 2018.

Inside, the riverboat will feature the largest staterooms in the industry, each featuring a private furnished balcony and full-sized bathroom. Passengers can explore a four-storey glass atrium, six large lounges, a grand dining room and a library, or take part in a range of recreational activities on top deck.    

“It gives the ship access to areas

that other ships can’t go.”

American Song’s exterior is also peppered with modern features. Its propellers can rotate through 360 degrees, making docking and manoeuvring much easier. Keeping things eco-friendly, the vessel is equipped with two ultra-low-sulphur diesel engines, which are said to require less fuel and produce lower emissions than other engines currently on use in the market.

And then there is the ship’s bow, which is designed to open and allow a retractable gangway to spring forth from the ship’s main deck directly onto land, making it far more versatile than your average steamboat. 

“The uniqueness of this advanced bow and nimble gangway gives the ship the ability to make ‘bow landings’ wherever needed,” says Paolella. “This feature will give American Song an array of options for its itineraries unmatched by other ships, as it gives the ship access to areas that other ships can’t go.”

The move to modern riverboats

American Cruise Lines may have first dibs on delivering a class of sleeker, modern riverboat to the US, but it is not for lack of trying from other companies eyeing the US river cruise market. 

For example, Viking River Cruises had planned to homeport two new-builds in New Orleans last year, but found it could not construct the ships in Europe under US federal law. The Jones Act states that river cruise ships operating in the country must be built in American shipyards, using American labour and materials.

“[Paddlewheelers] call to mind famous figures from bygone eras.”

Cruise operators such as American Queen Steamboat Company and French America Line have gotten around this by refurbishing older vessels. However, European companies looking to bring newly built riverboats to the US will have to find local shipyards with low enough costs to keep their rates competitive.

American Cruise Lines has proprietary access to the Chesapeake Shipbuilding shipyard in Salisbury, Maryland, and so is able to churn out its series of modern riverboats without a problem. Case in point, American Song was launched into the Wicomico River in November 2017, seven weeks ahead of schedule. It is currently being spruced up with upper decks and interior design features at Chesapeake, according to Paolella.  

The vessel will debut this year with an itinerary on the historic Mississippi river, previously the domain of American Cruise Lines paddlewheelers America (2016), and Queen of the Mississippi (2015). Nevertheless, according to Paolella, the move to introduce a modern ship series will not jeopardise the future of its existing fleet of authentic steamboats.

“[Paddlewheelers] call to mind famous figures from bygone eras like Mark Twain, along with all the major historical events that shaped the US from the American Revolution to the Civil War,” she says. “American Song, and the Modern Riverboats to come, will not replace the iconic paddlewheelers. They will develop their own place in the future of river travel as an exciting new ship style.”

All images are courtesy of Virgin Voyages